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Savings plan provides help and hope

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In 2008, while trying to take care of her cancer-stricken father in Tigard, Elizabeth Ebert lost her caregiving job. When her father died, she and her three daughters found themselves homeless.

It wasn’t until 2011 that stable housing became available when Community Action, which assists Washington County residents, helped them secure an apartment in Hillsboro. And it wasn’t until July 2013 that Elizabeth got a job again, this time as a part-time resident assistant at Community Action’s family shelter. Now, at age 29, she’s working full-time there at an annual wage of about $24,000 plus full benefits, including a retirement plan.

But Elizabeth wants more for her family. She has already completed one year at Portland Community College, but had to drop out when she became homeless. That left her with $8,000 in student loan debt, which she managed to pay off earlier this year.

Her next goal is to return to school and become a mental health professional working with the homeless, but she doesn’t want to take out loans again. In March, Community Action offered a solution: sign up for the Individual Development Account (IDA) program.

Oregon’s IDA initiative began in 1999 as an effort to build the financial capability skills of low-income Oregonians while they save toward specific goals.

In the IDA program, every dollar saved by a participant is matched by the initiative, typically at $3 for every $1 saved. Participants can deposit as much as they want into their savings account, but the maximum match over 12 months is $3,000. So $1,000 in savings will generate a $3,000 match, creating $4,000 in total savings. An IDA can be used to quadruple savings through matching funds up to a total of $12,000.

The matching money comes from private donations. For every dollar contributed, a taxpayer receives a 75 percent Oregon tax credit. That can be used to directly lower Oregon tax liability, up to the maximum contribution of $100,000 per return each tax year. There’s a $10 million limit on the total of all credit-eligible contributions made each year.

The tax credit is currently under review in the Legislature and could sunset on Jan. 1, 2016. Neighborhood Partnerships, a non-profit that manages the IDA program, is engaged in advocacy efforts to renew and expand the credit.

Initiative participants can benefit from their savings and the matched funds to help them purchase a home, fulfill an educational goal, develop and launch a small business, restore a home or purchase equipment to support employment.

Elizabeth applied to participate in the IDA program in April, and began taking the five required financial education classes. She began saving under the IDA program in June, starting with $30 from her paycheck every two weeks and increasing that over time. After six months, she can begin using the IDA money to pay for tuition and books at PCC.

Her immediate goal is to earn an associate degree, but she hopes to continue on at Portland State University.

“The IDA program is helping me learn how to save and teaching my children how you can build your future, even though you may have had a difficult past,” Elizabeth said. “Hopefully, I can be a role model for my children so they don’t get stuck.”

The IDA is a lifeline to many who live on the edge between despair and hope.

Griff O’Brien is senior vice president at Advantis Credit Union.